Published on March 13th, 2014 | by Dan Nicholls


The Costner Conundrum

The former superstar has evolved into a quality character actor. Here’s a look at why regaining leading man status isn’t necessarily in his best interest.

One of the earliest movie-going memories I have is of seeing Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the small theatre in the town I grew up in. I didn’t quite follow it all at the time, and I was young enough that the Crusades imagery in the opening credits terrified me (not to mention some of the more grotesque moments involving behandings and witches). But before I knew it I was ushered into a period of time when Kevin Costner was the biggest damn name in the movies. Dances with Wolves often popped up on our TV, while Field of Dreams, The Bodyguard, and The Untouchables rotated on satellite movie channels in our household.

I’ve been watching the numbers for February’s 3 Days to Kill very closely. The film isn’t connecting with audiences and it would be easy to point the finger at the former Hollywood golden boy that’s front and center of it all. The film isn’t very good — it’s damn near full on god awful — a lazy and xenophobic script is at the root of the film’s many troubles. It’s not surprising that a tone deaf mangling of a broke-ass Taken poser hasn’t rekindled the general public’s former romance with the aging star — it’s just unfortunate that someone didn’t intervene before this turkey landed in the man’s lap.

If he’s going after starring roles like 3 Days to Kill, then it’s likely that Costner is looking for a second round as a leading man.  It’s worth noting that with an estimated net worth of 150 million dollars, he doesn’t need the work. But whether it’s for ego or just because he thinks the meatier roles are all leads, Costner (or his management) seem to be overlooking where his real strengths lay: he has a considerable groove as a character actor, and it’s an area that he needs to exploit instead of chasing the marquee.

As much as I’m excited to see the resurgence in the man’s career, perhaps trying to jumpstart a second go-round as a leading man isn’t the best course of action. The box office numbers for 3 Days to Kill suggest this underground attempt at mainstream re-acceptance isn’t catching fire; prospect’s for April’s Draft Day, in which Costner stars as the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, will have a modest ceiling at best. November will see the release of Disney’s sports drama McFarland, which could benefit from some of the Mouse House’s marketing money, and although Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit underwhelmed this January ($49 million domestic to date), the once and former Robin Hood can’t and shouldn’t receive too much of the blame — a bungled release date and misguided trust in star Chris Pine’s box office clout should shoulder the responsibility.

Instead of trying to polish a faded façade, the inspiration for a real Costner renaissance needs to follow the trajectory of the actor’s best work of the millennium. His A-list fantasy may be unattainable, but a comfortable and respectable reality is sitting right in front of Costner. Those of us who consider ourselves diehard believers that the quality and sparkle of Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and JFK has to still exist inside of the man are cheering him on from the sidelines, but he’s got to be the one to accept he’s not the quarterback anymore. One can only hope that a reteaming with his The Upside of Anger director Mike Binder on Black and White (which is awaiting a release date) will make the picture clear. 


THIRTEEN DAYS (2000, Dir: Roger Donaldson)

There was a valiant effort on the part of Thirteen Days to give Costner’s respectability factor a boost, but KC’s Bahstahn accent was soupier than a waterlogged New England clam chowder. He gives it his all, god bless his little heart, but as good as he is he just doesn’t quite measure up to the heights reached by Bruce Greenwood’s performance as JFK. Some shaking vocal affectations (and controversy over the historical accuracy of Costner’s Kenny O’Donnell’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis) aside, it’s an earnest attempt to be taken seriously after the middling responses to 1999’s double dose of the man in For Love of the Game and Message in a Bottle.


OPEN RANGE (2003, Dir: Kevin Costner) 

Taking on directorial duties for the first time since the infamous The Postman six years prior, Open Range marked a return to the Western genre for Costner (who also starred as a former gunslinger drawn back to violence). Giving top billing to Robert Duvall and maintaining a restrained presence in front of the lens allowed Costner to focus on his filmmaking craft while honing in on a solid supporting performance. His man-of-few-words cattle herder appealed to viewers worn out on tent pole gluttony and managed to ride out the summer of 2003 as a sleeper success ($58 million domestic).


THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (2005, Dir: Mike Binder)

The first five minutes of the film haven’t even passed when Denny Davies comes knocking on Terry’s (Joan Allen) door. Stoned, and with a tall boy in hand, Davies oozes the rascally charm of Tin Cup’s Roy McAvoy; the difference between the swagger in each characters’ laughter inspires some Costnerverse theories/dreams of a distant relation between the two, or perhaps of a parallel-universe doppelganger situation. Free of bloated ego and vanity, Costner’s the scene-stealing supporting player to Allen’s emotional tornado of a performance. The film’s ending may be polarizing, but exploring the depths of Denny and Terry over two hours (representing three years) as they find release and forgiveness in each other makes for a compelling character study. As an added bonus, Costner’s absolutely hilarious in it.


THE COMPANY MEN (2010, John Wells)

Costner shines as a weatherworn carpenter in John Wells’ corporate downsizing drama, making his mark with less screen time than costars Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Tommy Lee Jones. The film veers a little too far into the territory of hammy melodrama a few more times than necessary, but those moments distract little from the strength of the ensemble. As sort of a middle America Yoda to Affleck’s fired businessman, Costner represents the heart and soul of the movie.


MAN OF STEEL (2013, Dir: Zack Snyder)

Not every actor can claim that they’ve played Superman’s dad, but Costner got to fill that role with expert ease in 2013’s franchise reboot. He appears only in flashbacks and speaks some of the most contradictory dialogue imaginable (I seriously still don’t know if Costner’s character, Pa Kent, feels his alien son should flaunt his gifts or keep them a secret). But the actor stepped up to the plate with this one and still managed to leave his own personal mark — it’s just a shame he didn’t have better material to work with. Still, Man of Steel should prove an example of how well the man could fit into a massively huge Hollywood blockbuster as a supporting performer.


JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014, Dir: Kenneth Branagh)

As the grizzled CIA veteran mentor to Chris Pine’s titular spy, Costner turned in a supporting turn that was drastically better than the film’s reputation would suggest. The movie itself is fun enough in a ‘poor man’s Bourne’ kind of way, and foreign territories were far more receptive to it than North American audiences were. It’s doubtful that a potential new franchise is going to spring from here, but it’s still a serviceable specimen of the potential that exists for a smaller level of Costner in a much bigger spectacle.


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is a Vancouver-based, lifelong movie geek who's been a projectionist, critic, director, (accidental) actor, and writer in the industry since E.T. phoned home. @dannicholls

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